After losing his legs fighting with his Marine Corps unit in Afghanistan in 2010, Paul was put on a steady regimen of OxyContin, a potent, highly addictive and, back then, heavily prescribed opiate. After years of intense rehab — as soon as he was physically, mentally and emotionally strong enough — he weaned himself off a daily pharmaceutical cocktail (which also included Ambien, Methadone, Seroquel, etc.) in part by replacing those concentrated chemical compounds with consuming marijuana four to five times a week.
“For me, getting blown up again, I’d rather do that than have to go through the detox of getting off those opioids,” recounts Paul, who asked we not use his real name so he doesn’t get fired for candidly talking to Rolling Stone. “I just never wanted to touch an opioid again if I could avoid it, and that’s the reason that led me to pot.”
But Paul, like countless thousands of others like him in the federal workforce, faces a dilemma every day. He can either resort to popping the opioids he despises — the ones that gave him intense cold sweats and mind altering withdrawals — or risk losing his federal job for using marijuana. That’s because even federal workers in states where medical marijuana is legal can be fired for consuming marijuana, because it’s still illegal at the federal level.
“I don’t know if I could do my job and live my life as productively without it, so it’s not really a choice,” says Paul. “Either I run the risk of being fired, or I run the risk of not being able to sleep and being miserable and being in pain.”
That’s a risk that federal workers should never face, according to Reps. Charlie Crist (D-FL) and Drew Ferguson (R-GA). They’ve introduced new legislation that would allow federal workers to consume pot if they live in the increasing number of states and territories where medical marijuana is legal in one form or another.
“This has nothing to do with being high,” Crist tells Rolling Stone. “This has everything to do with being pain free.”
The bill, called the Fairness in Federal Drug Testing Under State Laws Act, addresses the growing chasm between federal and state laws that has resulted in marijuana being legal in many localities even as it’s still federally prohibited. Congress has yet to truly address that divide, even as lawmakers from both parties voice support for their voter’s decisions to legalize weed back at home.
That mismatch means federal employees are currently forbidden from accessing the medicine that their neighbors can consume without threat of local prosecution.
“That just doesn’t make sense,” Crist says. “Why wouldn’t we do it for our federal workers in all 50 states by virtue of this legislation?”
It’s unclear how many of the nation’s millions of civilian federal employees or contractors use marijuana for medicinal purposes, but Paul isn’t alone. One survey last year found 11 percent of government employees use marijuana, though the survey included state and local workers, too. Another survey found 82 percent of the nation’s veterans support medical cannabis programs.
With many federal agencies actively recruiting veterans who are still suffering from PTSD and other injuries related to their service, the legislation is geared towards them, though it extends to all federal employees.
“You’ve got to start somewhere and it seemed to me that starting with helping veterans, would get a sympathetic audience from most Americans,” Crist says.
To help those veterans and other federal employees, the bill’s sponsors are hoping to rethink laws Congress passed in the heart of the Just-Say-No-era. In 1986, Congress passed the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Program, which explicitly barred anyone working for executive branch agencies — think Department of Education, Health and Human Services and the Department of Transportation, to name a few — from using a federally banned substance while on or off duty. That act has kept countless thousands of Americans from getting federal jobs for smoking marijuana in the past or for currently using marijuana to treat their pain, PTSD or just to get a few rest-filled hours of sleep.
“We’ve passed the point of absurdity with respect to disqualifying people from federal service because they’ve tried marijuana,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) tells Rolling Stone. “I think that’s a policy that ought to be discarded.”
Under Crist’s legislation, a federal employee can still be tested — and potentially terminated — if they show signs of impairment on the job, and people with top-secret security clearances could still be barred from using weed at all. But most government workers could still use marijuana off hours, and lower level security clearances could still be attained by people who use marijuana regularly for stress or pain relief.
“Starting, frankly, with my generation, marijuana became fairly commonly used — to disqualify generation of Americans from security clearances or federal employment because they indulged makes no sense at all,” says Connolly, who is 68. “Moving forward, that policy needs to be changed.”
But the bill faces the massive hurdle of the current federal policy of prohibition being in direct opposition to the majority of state policies on pot.
“Marijuana is a controlled substance and we ought to either repeal that or enforce the law,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) tells Rolling Stone. “The laws on the books we ought to enforce the law.”
Still, the clouds surrounding marijuana use by federal employees seem ominous in and of themselves, with some lawmakers even questioning whether the current laws on the books are discriminatory.
“You could argue that if it’s been prescribed to you legitimately, not allowing you to do it could be some sort of a discrimination based on medical condition, which could violate other laws,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who supports decriminalizing marijuana completely at the federal level, tells Rolling Stone.
This latest effort to end the stigma around marijuana use doesn’t seem like it will be going anywhere ahead of November’s election, and it could even be a long shot after the returns come in. But if Congress were to pass the law it would send a signal that would be felt in every corner of the nation. That’s part of the thinking behind the bill.
“Symbolism is symbolic but also can be powerful,” Crist says. “A message from the federal government…could really send a very powerful message.”